While Donald Trump blusters about how China hurts the US economy, US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific is an issue that typically garners little mainstream analysis. However, the United States is deeply immersed in a regional chess-game against China’s rising power: The US is expanding its ongoing military presence in the Asia-Pacific, at the expense of national sovereignty, local democracy, human rights and the environment.
China’s increasing naval power worries the US military establishment, as it could upset US naval hegemony.
In 2011, President Obama announced a “pivot to Asia” – a policy shift that would devote more resources to the Asia-Pacific and counter China’s rising power. Just as he was about to start his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in July 2015, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford cited Russia and China as top national security threats to the United States, highlighting Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile and aggressive foreign policy actions, and China’s growing military strength. Meanwhile, Dunford claimed that ISIS is less of a concern than Russia and China.
Last August, the US government released its maritime security strategy for the Asia-Pacific. It outlined the competing claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, along with China’s rising military power and expansionist moves in the Asia-Pacific, such as its construction of artificial islands near the Spratly Islands. The US released its strategy to notify all nations, particularly US allies, of its position.
According to the document, the Pentagon wants to “safeguard the freedom of the seas,” prevent conflict and promote international law. US maritime strategy will focus on strengthening US naval power to “deter conflict and coercion and respond decisively when needed” and promoting the “maritime rules of the road.” Essentially, this is code for promoting “maritime law” to the extent that it benefits US hegemony and trade in the region.
South China Sea
For over two years, China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. To build its islands, China digs up underwater sediment and deposits the material on reefs. On the islands, China has constructed port facilities, military buildings and airstrips. Shortly after 2016 rang in, China landed a test plane on an airstrip it built on one of its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam condemned China’s move. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh argued that the airfield was “built illegally” in a territory that was “part of Vietnam’s Spratlys,” according to Reuters. On January 6, China landed two more test planes on one of its artificial islands.
China defended its decision to build facilities on its artificial islands near the Spratlys at 2015’s East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. According to Reuters, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said, “Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defense and for the protection of those islands and reefs.” He argued that China is mostly building civilian facilities that can help commercial ships, fishermen and distressed vessels.
As part of its strategy to counter China, the US will transfer 4,800 Marines from Okinawa to Guam.
However, the process of building these islands damages the surrounding marine ecosystem. Frank Muller-Karger, professor of biological oceanography at the University of South Florida, told The New York Times that sediment “can wash back into the sea, forming plumes that can smother marine life and could be laced with heavy metals, oil and other chemicals from the ships and shore facilities being built.” Those fumes may harm the Spratlys’ “biologically diverse reefs,” which could have “trouble surviving in sediment-laden water.”
As China increases its naval power, the US Navy wants to buy new anti-ship missiles. The US military has dominated the high seas since the end of the Cold War as no other nation’s navy poses a serious threat to its power. China’s increasing naval power, however, worries the US military establishment, as it could upset US naval hegemony. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential think-tank, recently warned that China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea shift the balance of military power against the United States.
The US Navy has 272 ships and submarines, including more than 150 in the reserve fleet, spread throughout the globe. Meanwhile, China has 303 naval ships, including 64 submarines. Japan has 67 naval ships, while Vietnam has 37 and the Philippines has 14. While China has more naval ships, the United States has “the most technologically sophisticated navy in the world,” according to Foreign Policy.
The US Navy’s new approach involves securing access to various air bases – rather than large, permanent bases – in remote Pacific islands to “reduce the vulnerability of large bases within China’s missile range,” Foreign Policy reports. Many US military officers “believe Chinese warships could possibly shoot down or outmaneuver the aging Harpoon [anti-ship missiles] in a conflict, and that more sophisticated weapons are needed to provide the United States with a credible counterweight.” Therefore, the Navy wants to increase the firepower of its surface ships and submarines by arming them with better and longer-range anti-ship missiles that can effectively evade high-tech defense systems. Rather than rely on aircraft carriers and submarines to launch attacks, the new naval approach will have more surface ships armed with better offensive power to launch their own attacks.
The United States already has access to military bases in the Philippines and airfields in Palau, an independent Pacific island nation east of the Philippines that gives the US responsibility for its defense. Palau also gives the US the right to maintain military bases in its country.
US Militarism in the Pacific
Japan – particularly the island of Okinawa – is another beachhead for the US military. The United States has 32 military installations on Okinawa, along with 20 air spaces and 28 water areas that are training areas for US forces. Okinawa houses around 26,000 US military personnel, which is over half of the total number of US troops based in Japan. The US bases are unpopular with Okinawans; the island’s residents say they are treated as a colony by the US and Japanese central government.
Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, a US Marine aircraft base on Okinawa, is particularly notorious for noise, pollution and crimes committed by US troops. The base is the city of Ginowan, which holds 96,000 people, and US aircraft have crashed in the surrounding area several times. Additionally, some US military personnel at Futenma have committed heinous crimes, such as the notorious gang-rape by 3 US troops of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl in 1995.
In December 2013, then-Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved a plan to relocate the Futenma base, which the United States supported. The air base will be moved from Futenma to Camp Schwab – a base already used and controlled by US Marines – in the Henoko village near Oura Bay. Both the United States and Japan agreed to close the Futenma air base in 1996, but the plan was stalled partially due to local opposition, who wanted the base withdrawn from Okinawa altogether rather than moved.
Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent of the US military base, was elected governor of Okinawa in November 2014 and during his campaign, he promised to do everything in his power to cancel plans for the Futenma base relocation project. Since he entered office, Onaga has been pushing back against the base. This has angered the central government.
To counter China, in 2014, the Philippines signed a 10-year pact with the US that expands the US military presence in the country.
Recently, the Japanese central government sued Onaga and ordered him to reinstate a landfill work permit that would relocate the US base. In response, Onaga filed a countersuit in order to nullify the central government’s order. Even former Okinawa governor Masahide Ota, who also fought efforts to maintain US bases, criticized the central government’s lawsuit over the US base. “The attempt to suppress (local opposition) by a suit is tantamount to trampling on the feelings of the people of Okinawa,” he said in an interview with The Japan Times.
Last November, a group of 45 activists from Okinawa came to Washington, DC, to oppose the Futenma base relocation project. They demanded that President Obama cancel the United States’ agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to build a new base at Henoko Bay.
Additionally, as part of its strategy to counter China, the United States will transfer 4,800 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Japan will pay a third of the estimated $8.7 billion cost to build the new US Marine hub. According to The Olympian, the US Defense Department is “drawn to Guam and the Mariana Islands because American territories offer reliable space without worries of a foreign government suddenly revoking a partnership with the U.S. military” as the Philippines did to the United States in 1991. Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo welcomes the plan, while many locals oppose it. The original plan would have sent around 9,000 US troops, along with about 9,000 military family members, from Okinawa to Guam. After We Are Guahan, an activist group of mostly young Guam natives, and San Francisco attorney Nick Yost filed a lawsuit against the plan, the Pentagon decided to cut the number of US troops transferred to Guam in half.
In addition to Guam, the US military wants to expand training exercises in Tinian and Pagan but also faces local resistance. Both islands are governed by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States, similar to Puerto Rico. The Mariana Islands are an archipelago of several islands in the Pacific Ocean, over 1,500 miles from Japan and the Philippines. While Guam is part of the larger Mariana archipelago, it is not governed by the Commonwealth. It is a separate, unincorporated US territory.
As The Olympian reported, “In Guam and the Marianas, the Defense Department wants to create a space for large-scale exercises involving every branch of the American military and its Pacific allies. It would be adjacent to the Navy’s underwater training range in the Mariana trench, providing a rare location to integrate sea and land warfare.” The US Navy plans to “convert the entire island of Pagan into a live-fire training range,” according to Stars and Stripes. Palau and the Mariana archipelago saw heavy fighting between Japan and the United States during World War II. Tinian is the island where the Enola Gay flew from to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Almost needless to say, residents are not eager to host a heightened US presence in the 21st century.
As in the case of China’s expansion in the Spratlys, US military activities across Pacific islands such as the Marianas damage their environment. As Hawai’i-based independent journalist Jon Letman points out, US military training in Pacific islands creates pollution, contamination and hazardous waste because of the exercises and hardware used. Underwater demolition and landing craft exercises in Guam, for example, harm the island’s coastal water and reefs. Experts and locals in Tinian and Pagan argue that US troops and military hardware would harm the islands’ “pristine black sand beaches and rare animal species,” according to the Guardian. The casualties of the US’s beefed-up naval presence are poised to mount as alarmism over China’s burgeoning presence grows.
Strategic Alliances Against China
China’s expansionism in the South China Sea is alarming other nations in the region, as well, not just the United States. Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University, Philippines, explained in an Al Jazeera English op-ed, “China is suffering increasing diplomatic isolation due to its aggressive maneuvers across contested waters such as the South China Sea.” Last November, Vietnam and the Philippines signed a “strategic partnership” that deepens “defense, trade and maritime cooperation,” according to VOA News.
That same month, Japan and the Philippines signed an agreement to strengthen military cooperation, including the transfer of military equipment, between the two countries. Abe said, “The President [Benigno Aquino III] and I also had a candid exchange of views on regional peace and stability. We shared deep concerns over unilateral actions to change the status quo such as the large-scale land reclamation and building of outpost in the South China Sea. At the same time, we confirmed the importance of partnership in the global community based on the rule of law to protect open, free and peaceful seas.”
“The purpose of us [the US] being in Asia is to protect those sea lanes. We want to make sure we control the oil going in.”
In September 2015, Japan’s Parliament passed a bill, advocated by Abe, that authorizes the country’s military to engage in overseas combat missions – overturning Japan’s tradition of pacifism since the end of World War II. Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution – drafted during the 1947 US occupation – declares that the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” As a result, Japan’s military has only been used to protect the country’s homeland rather than engage in overseas combat operations. According to the BBC, the bill would eliminate “[r]egional limits on Japanese military support for US and other foreign armed forces,” make it “legal for Japan to shoot down a North Korean missile headed for the US,” allow logistical support – but not allow sending troops – to South Korea in case North Korea invaded, and possibly allow military action to secure shipping lanes and “[a]rmed involvement in hostage rescues.”
Abe claims that Japan needs to take a more active role in countering threats like China’s growing military power and a nuclear-armed North Korea. However, much of the Japanese public opposes the bill. A July 2015 poll conducted by Kyodo News revealed that 62 percent of respondents opposed the security bill. The bill also hurt Abe’s approval rating, which sits below 40 percent. The bill has been protested by citizens, activists, academics and artists – including legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki – on both the right and left in Japan.
Investigative journalist Tim Shorrock explains that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is a member, has long had close ties with the United States and CIA. As the Cold War was brewing, in 1948, US policy toward Japan switched from “punishing Japanese bureaucrats and industrialists responsible for World War II to enlisting them in a global war against the Soviet Union and China,” according to Shorrock. This new bill, Shorrock aptly describes, will turn Japan into the United States’ “new proxy army.”
In addition to the new bill, Japan has increased military spending since 2012 to counter China’s rising power. This year, Japan’s defense budget is expected to exceed 5 trillion yen (around $42 billion). Japan also plans to purchase new and advanced military equipment, such as a new destroyer and submarine, surveillance aircraft, helicopters, F-35 fighter jets, Osprey aircraft and amphibious vehicles.
To counter China, in 2014, the Philippines signed a 10-year pact with the United States – called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) – that expands the US military presence in the country. The EDCA provides the United States access to eight military bases in the Philippines, including two near the Spratly Islands: Antonio Bautista Air Base and Carlito Cunanan Naval Station, both on the Philippines’ Palawan Island.
For over a year, labor and other activist groups filed three petitions with the Philippine Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the EDCA. Recently, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the EDCA’s constitutionality in a 10-4 decision.
The Philippines has had strong ties with the US military since it became a US colony after the 1898 Spanish-American War up to 1945. Even though US bases were kicked out in 1991, the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement allows for joint US-Philippine military training and exercises and even grants the US jurisdiction over crimes committed by its troops on Philippine soil. After 9/11, military cooperation between the United States and the Philippines accelerated. The US military advises and supports Philippine security forces fighting against Islamic separatists in Mindanao, a Philippine island rich in natural resources.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the South China Sea contains around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, including both proved and probable reserves. The surrounding countries – Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – all have competing claims over the South China Sea’s oil and natural gas, which has ignited tension in the region. Altogether, countries in Asia and the Pacific islands contain 46 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 534 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, according to the EIA. This is much smaller than that of Southwest Asia, otherwise known as the Middle East, which has over half of the world’s proven oil reserves. The Middle East contains 808 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, along with 2,818 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea is a crucial international energy trade route. According to the EIA, “Almost a third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied natural gas (LNG) passes through the South China Sea each year.” The Strait of Malacca, which flows between Malaysia and Indonesia and leads up north to the South China Sea, “is the shortest sea route between African and Persian Gulf suppliers and Asian consumers. The strait is a critical transit chokepoint and has become increasingly important over the last two decades,” according to the EIA.
Koohan Paik, a journalist and campaign director of the Asia-Pacific program at the International Forum on Globalization who has traveled to the Asia-Pacific several times, told Truthout that while the South China Sea’s natural resources play a role in US-Asian efforts to counter China, the sea lanes are far more important. “The purpose of us [the US] being in Asia is to protect those sea lanes. We want to control those sea lanes. We want to make sure we control the oil going in to all of the manufacturing factories in our client states of Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and our factories that we own in China,” Paik explained. She also argues in a Common Dreams piece that there is a connection between the Trans-Pacific Partnership and US militarism: The goal is to counter China by forming a free trade alliance between the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific.
Dangers of Escalation
The US military buildup in the Asia-Pacific carries the real risk of provoking China into a larger conflict – a conflict that would not go well for the United States, China or any other country in the region.
While acknowledging the reality of US militarism “trampling on the national sovereignty of many smaller Asia states,” Heydarian told Truthout that China’s expansionism in the South China Sea harms freedom of navigation in the area and “is directly threatening the territorial integrity of smaller Asia countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.” However, “there is of course the threat of further provocation if the US steps up its ongoing efforts to rein in Chinese territorial assertiveness.” Heydarian argues that “the solution isn’t a military one. While one could argue that American military posturing could help smaller ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries to push back against China, diplomacy and international law represent our best hope to peacefully manage, if not resolve, the disputes. An optimal strategy is one that combines calibrated deterrence with pro-active diplomacy.” He also said the Southeast Asian nations should “finalize a legally binding code of conduct to peacefully address the disputes.”
Paik argues that the solution for peace in the region will not come from US or Chinese hegemony. “I see any kind of hegemony as an enemy of the people. I think the scale by which the world powers operate, by necessity, is going to crush democracy,” she said. Paik also pointed out that the sense among many Pacific Islanders is that both US hegemony and Chinese hegemony are bad and that there needs to be an alternative to the current economic system that drives the conflict.